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22 Songs That Are a Reminder of Why Jay-Z is The G.O.A.T Highsnobiety

Jay-Z is one of my favorite rappers of all time — easily in my top five conversations. Let’s just get that out of the way. I honestly believe we will never see an artist quite like the New York native. Sure, people have mentioned KRS One, Drake, Lil Wayne, Big Daddy Kane, and Kanye in the same breath as Hova, but today I am here to argue that Jay-Z, both in artistry, influence, lyricism, and life story, is far more compelling than these hip-hop legends.

Jay-Z is very much in his old-man sensei stage, or better yet, Dinero at the end of Casino. But that doesn’t mean he is still not effortlessly bodying his peers on tracks. (See Drug Dealers Anonymous)

Born December 4, 1969, in Brooklyn, New York, Sean Carter started in the Marcy Projects with nothing to his name and, against all odds, used his raw ambition, curiosity, and love of storytelling to transcend his circumstances and his medium.

Like an American literary hero, in the vain of Gatsby, he’s become one of the wealthiest and most influential people in history. Hell, his music plays and read like an American epic. The uncompromising hustler, the repentant mobster, the wealthy rockstar, and the reflective battle-harden mentor — all of Jay-Z’s albums chronologically fall into one of these eras.

I say all of this because his music directly reflects this story. Call it the ultimate "Hip hop heroes’ journey", if you listen to Hov’s albums, they tell a grandiose story that feels like it belongs in the Martin Scorsese universe.

Today we decided to complete the impossible task of ranking some of Jay-Z’s best songs of all time. To simplify this task, we will not include mixtapes or featured tracks and are mostly base on my personal perference.

Check out the best Jay-Z songs of all time below.

Excuse Me Miss feat. Pharrell

Jay Z and Pharrell remain one of my favorite duos in hip hop. Skateboard P seems to have the ability to bring out Hovito’s more playful side. "Excuse Me Miss" is a perfect example of this. This track follows Jay as he tries to seduce a potential love interest with all the trapping of his superstar personality and wealth. It’s campy, fun, and reminiscent of some of the same soul-love songs that our parents play every Sunday.

Sweet

American Gangster is probably Jay-Z’s most underrated album. Created in conjunction with Ridley Scott’s biographical depiction of the black kingpin Frank Lucas, American Gangster parallels Jay-Z’s own come-up with Frank Lucas’s rise in the drug game. Serving as almost as a character study to the American black hustler, each bar over the silk smooth Motown-inspired production paints a vivid story of a ruthlessly ambitious but self-aware anti-hero. This is nothing new in Jay-Z’s discography. But, the storytelling here, feels so much more concise. "Sweet" is my favorite track on the album. Laced with double entendres, the track gives us insight into a self-reflective outlaw at the height of his power. This is always my favorite side of Jay-Z.

D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)

There was a time when autotune was considered taboo among hip-hop artists with the exception being Kanye West, T-pain, and Lil Wayne. Returning after a long hiatus, Jay-Z reappears like a senior-ranking mafioso to check on his peers and remind them why he is the G.O.A.T. This track works so well because of the No I.D. production. It wouldn’t feel out of place in a smokey cigar room in Harlem with Bumpy Johnson and his peers.

Picasso Baby

The "Art/wealthy Jay-Z" fully manifested himself in Magna Carta Holy Grail. A follow-up to the massive success to Watch the Throne, there was a lot of hype for this album. Did it live up to it? Meh. The album was good but often felt as if it was lacking something, often playing like a DLC to Watch the Throne rather than a Jay album. Nonetheless, singles like "Picasso Baby" work extremely well here, playing up the album’s high-art themes. He even put together a performance art piece for the track. It also did bless me with some of my favorite Jay lyrics of all time like:"Come through with the ‘Ye mask on/Spray everything like SAMO/I won’t scratch the Lambo."

Empire State of Mind feat Alicia Keys

I am going to be real with you. I do not like this song, and I do not think I ever will. But, I respect it. Jay-Z, an NYC native, created an anthem for the city of New York on par with Sinatra’s own, "New York". Everyone and their grandma knows this song, making its way into movies, tv-shows, sporting events, festivals, and beyond. It’s one of Jay-Z’s biggest hits — a full-circle moment for the artist.

On to the Next One

Another hip-hop, duo that I love is Swiss Beatz and Jay Z. Though not always flawless, "One To the Next One" is one of the duo’s best tracks. Jay is exceedingly cocky in the best possible way, giving listeners a healthy amount of double and triple entendre, subtle jabs at competitors, and a bit of flexing. The video itself was also a very tactful play on the Illuminati conspiracy surrounding Jay-Z at the time.

Kill Jay Z

4:44 is one of Jay’s most personal and introspective albums — a therapy session amid the aftermath of Beyonce’s Lemonade. HOV doesn’t just tackle his infidelities but takes a hard look at himself as a man, entertainer, father, and son. "Kill Jay Z " is an exercise in dismantling his ego and the various internal and external forces that have shaped him throughout his career. In this ego death, Jay Z finds a new purpose — while sharing the new insights he’s garnered over the years with his listeners. It’s here we are introduced to the "wise mentor" Jay-Z in its full form.

Takeover

Jay-Z is the king of subliminals. However, if he comes at you, you better have a war chest ready. Over an illustrious David Bowie sample, Jay Z takes on some of his ops with Nas being the one in the crosshairs of the track. Sure, "Ether" was brutal but most hip-hop historians will tell you that "Takeover" is what pushed the beef over the edge, allowing Hov to claim victory. This is easily one of Hip hop’s best diss tracks of all time — a historic moment that still carries some weight today.

The Story of OJ

Another favorite from 4:44, The Story of OJ is a socially charged track that offers a "free game" to the black community — tackling an array of subjects ranging from racism to wealth creation. Using THAT Nina Simone sample, it’s one of Jay’s most mature tracks, seeing him embrace this role as a black leader to the newer generation. Rather than come-off preachy, the songs work as "Hey, I made these mistakes, so you don’t have to."

Lucifer

Remember when Kanye would just bless us with genre-shattering beats rather than controversies? "Lucifer" is one of Kanye’s best-produced tracks for Jay. The New York Rapper floats over the track, again telling another engaging story of a character out for violent revenge while both being self-aware of his sins and begging the lord for forgiveness. Though dark, there is an air of levity with the track that is also apparent in the sample used. It is a quintessential Jay-Z song and another amazing feat on the Black Album.

Brooklyn’s Finest feat. The Notorious B.I.G.

"Brooklyn’s Finest" is a masterpiece of hip-hop collaboration, bringing together two of Brooklyn’s greatest rappers in their prime: Jay-Z and the Notorious B.I.G. The track is a tantalizing glimpse into what might have been, had the two artists been able to continue their partnership. From the opening interpolation of Al Pacino’s classic performance in "Carlito’s Way" by Wayne "Pain in Da Ass" Hirschorn, to the increasingly absurd crime boasts traded by Jay-Z and Biggie, this song is a tour de force of lyrical skill and bravado. Both rappers are at the top of their game here, spitting fire over a beat that perfectly captures the essence of Brooklyn hip-hop. This is a track that oozes with swagger and confidence, a testament to the power of two of the greatest rappers of all time coming together to create something truly special.

Dead Presidents II

Enter the world of Jay-Z’s "Dead Presidents," a timeless classic that set the standard for Mafioso rap. Released in February 1996, this track was an instant hit, showcasing the artist’s unparalleled lyricism and effortless flow. With lines like "representing infinity with presidencies," Jay-Z proved himself to be a master of wordplay and double entendres, delivering a blistering critique of fake thugs who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. But it’s not just the lyrics that make this track so special – it’s the way Jay-Z delivers them, with a deftly loquacious style that’s become his signature. This is a track that stands the test of time, a powerful reminder of the influence of Mafioso rap and the enduring legacy of one of hip-hop’s greatest talents.

Heart of City (Ain’t No Love)

The beat that would go on to put Kanye West on the map, Jay Z’s "Heart of the City" uses a chunk of the infectious Bobby “Blue” Bland’s plush 1974 funk ballad “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City. Here Jay reflects on the duality of his rapid success in 2001 — the love and hate relationship, he has with his city, fan, critics, and competition. It’s another fan favorite in the rapper’s extensive discography.

Can’t Knock the Hustle feat. Mary J. Blige

This is one of my favorite Jay-Z songs of all time. Its smooth, dense lyricism married with a very bouncy and bubbly ’90s beat makes it a timeless classic that still feels good today. In this captivating song, Jay-Z skillfully navigates two different worlds: the rough streets he grew up on and the cutthroat world of rap. He takes aim at neighborhood snitches who are always watching, ready to report back to the authorities on his street hustling activities. But at the same time, he’s also anticipating the inevitable critics who will try to tear him down as he rises to the top of the rap game. It’s Jay at his sharpest and with MJ’s hook, you really can’t go wrong here.

Public Service Announcement

My favorite Just Blaze moment in Jay-Z’s discography, HOV goes out guns blazing addressing any and anything that has stood in his way to this point in his career. The track is intentionally stadium-sized epic, while also being callous and ominous. Imagine if Jay-Z actually retired after the Black Album.

This Can’t Be Life feat. Scarface and
Beanie Seagal

Prepare to be transported back to the early days of Roc-A-Fella, where Kanye West’s soulful beats effortlessly blend with Jay’s raw and emotional lyrics. In a departure from his notorious callousness, Jay delivers a poignant reflection on the painful origins of his show business pursuits and passions. But the real stars of the show are Beanie Sigel and Scarface, who steal the spotlight with their powerful and nuanced portrayals of pain. Beanie embodies the exhaustion that comes from trying to hide his suffering behind drugs and pills, while Scarface manages to explore the depths of love, spirituality, community, and loss in just a few short verses. This is a song that will leave you breathless with its raw honesty and emotional complexity.

Big Pimpin’feat. UGK

Hot take: Pimp C has the best verse on Big Pimpin. However, that does not mean Jay’s 32 bars are not phenomenal. It just shows how amazing this hit was. Produced by Timbaland and shot by the legendary Hype Williams, the video was just as big, becoming a fan favorite for many hip-hop fans and future rappers, including Drake. It’s a song that had far-reaching implications stylistically in the 2000s, and arguably had a role in the impending bling era.

Intro

Anyone who is a Jay-Z fan will have this track in their top 10 easily. It is MC at his rawest — delivering bar after bar of lyrical voodoo, storytelling, and effortless rapping. Also, I can’t tell you how many different times I have heard this Just Blaze beat appear throughout culture, with various rappers taking turns trying to emulate Jay-Z’s bar with little to no success. This is the Jay-Z that New York fell in love with — a focused, intentional, witty, lyricist, who could probably rap circles around some of your favorites.

Dirt Off Your Shoulder

There is some bias here. The Black Album was my first introduction to Jay-Z. It’s where I became a fan of Hovito, so each song on this perfectly sequenced and produced album holds a lot of weight. Nonetheless, taking a step back, even critics will agree that the Black Album has gifted us with some of Jay-Z’s most momentous, catchy, and compelling tracks. "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" is this perfect balance of the New York MC’s lyrical talent with his ability to create an unforgettable earworm. This song was an anthem when it came out, having everyone including me, "dusting their shoulder off" at random times throughout the day. Also, Timbaland did his thing again on this beat.

Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)

This song blew people’s minds when it arrived. Not just because it would go on to break into the Top 15 of the pop charts, but because of the unorthodox and dare I say, genius flipping of the Annie Broadway soundtrack. A monster hit, for many people, this was their first introduction to Jay-Z and his story as a hustler. The hard lyrics and dark realities lyrics shared in the song juxtaposed beautifully with the playful sample, creating one of the most memorable moments in hip-hop.

Where I’m From

There are few tracks in Jay Z’s catalog that can match the raw power and emotional intensity of "Where I’m From." This song is a gritty, triumphant ode to his upbringing in the Marcy Projects, a place that was both a source of pain and inspiration for the rapper. Originally passed on by Diddy, the track was still rough around the edges, lacking sound effects and extra percussion.

But when Jay-Z heard the beat, he was inspired to pour his heart and soul into the recording. The result is a masterpiece of personal reflection and cultural critique, a distillation of the rapper’s surroundings both past and present. With each verse, Jay-Z takes the listener on a journey through his life, touching on themes of poverty, struggle, and triumph in equal measure.

99 Problems

You might not even be that big of a Jay-Z fan, but I promise you that 99 problems are somewhere in one of your playlist. Produced by the legendary Rick Ruben, it’s another song that beautifully marries Jay-Z’s bombastic and often scathing lyrical talent with vivid storytelling. The difference here is that it feels beautifully unrelenting, thanks to the production.

When Rick Rubin and the artist got together for that session, the result was a masterpiece that blended classic heavy metal riffs with a modern-day critique of the cultural biases against black men and rappers. While Rubin’s production evokes memories of his legendary work with LL Cool J and Beastie Boys in the 80s, the lyrics are scorching and powerful, calling out those who demonize the artist for his race and chosen profession. With searing intensity, the artist challenges the status quo and lays bare the struggles of black men in America today. This is a track that demands to be heard, a blistering indictment of a society that still struggles with racial inequality and injustice.

Next, dive into Jay-Z and one of hip hop’s biggest beef

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